Stand-alone articles (as opposed to those published in magazines or newsletters) have been around for a long time in the form of white papers, tracts, and pamphlets, but in the online age such publications have really come into their own. Now, everyone with a Web site or social networking account can freely post company anecdotes, helpful hints, and top-ten lists. And these articles can be written as long or as short, as frequently or as sporadically, as the needs of the situation call for.
Of course, sometimes it's useful to have a hard copy in hand, and a simple printout isn't always enough. Particularly if you need handouts for a trade show or want to give clients something easier to handle than an 8 x 11" sheet, the professionally printed booklet or brochure can do wonders for your "businesslike" image. Even if you have to hire a professional graphic designer and make sure the number of pages is divisible by 8, it may be worth it.
In either case, as with any business writing, you need a specific purpose for your project. And whether you're introducing your business--or your latest product or service--to the public, providing news on your industry as a whole, or giving out helpful hints related to your field of expertise, there are principles that apply to every stand-alone article.
Shorter is usually better--and the longer the article is, the less it should state outright what the sponsoring company wants. Not only do people have short attention spans, but the more focused an article is on "selling them," the faster they get bored. That's why advertorials run only one page and feature articles don't include "buy now" appeals.
Use lots of subheads. Article readers like to skim for key points, and anything that makes that easier is welcome.
Bulleted and numbered lists nearly always get favorable attention. Their "sound bite" approach and the white space they leave on the page gives an impression of "efficient and uncluttered."
Visuals may be more expensive than all-text, but often the greater appeal is worth it. Try to use visuals with Web articles, at least, where cost is far less an issue.
Lifelike visuals score highest. Photographs usually trump drawings, especially when the subjects are shown smiling and acting natural. People always trump objects. If your article topic is something like "keeping the wilderness wild" and you don't want to show people stepping on nature, include shots of active living creatures--not just plants and rocks.
If you aren't talking about your company directly in the text, don't forget to include your logo, mission statement, and contact information. Keep it inconspicuously at the bottom of the back page, though. In the interest of good public relations, every business should occasionally give away some free information related to its field of expertise, but making the source too obvious (e. g., explaining every two paragraphs that you specialize in solving such problems professionally) gives a "back door sales" impression that irritates readers.
Also to avoid annoying readers, don't serve up mixed purposes in the same article. Sales on one page, news on the next, and everyday advice on the third works fine in magazines, but a single article--even a booklet-length one--needs a single purpose. Like the short story that shifts point of view every third paragraph, a multi-purpose article will soon have readers wanting to throw the thing across the room to relieve the frustration of trying to figure out where their primary mental focus belongs.
Articles can be extremely useful as public relations or sales tools. Like all tools, they are most useful (and safest) when handled in certain ways.